“The Science of Baseball: The Math, Technology
and Data Behind the Great America Pastime”
The review in 90 feet or less
Ted Williams always seemed to us, especially in our young impressionable existence of Little League and high-school days, to be one of baseball’s greatest scientific minds. Long before he got his head around the theories that crossed over in the advancement of cryogenics.
Mostly from years as a fairly successful ball swatter (and perhaps, using that while gunning down enemy aircraft during Navy and Marine Corp missions), he was in a position to share his knowledge during what was only a four-year, hands-on instructional time as manager of the Washington Senators (and their first year moving to become the Texas Rangers) from ’69 to ’72, after he turned 50.
Yet in those 600-plus games, his teams were only above .500 in his first year (a fourth-place finish in the American League) and got progressively worse (a 100-loss season in the 154-game shortened year of ’72). As angry as he may have been, his record shows he was never ejected from a game.
In Dave Fleming’s piece for BillJamesOnline in 2008, investigating the theory that good players hardly made good managers, he wrote: “Ted Williams was probably the smartest hitter to ever play professional baseball. But as a manager for the Senators, Teddy would routinely get pissed off at his player’s inability to do things he did. Why couldn’t they see that pitch was four inches off the goddamn plate? How come they didn’t know a change-up was coming? You see where I’m going? Williams imagined that everyone had the capacity to judge ball from strike just like he did. He didn’t buy all that crap about his miracle eyesight. He thought, “Damnit, you just gotta work at it.””
In the sweet spot of those four years, Williams did a Sports Illustrated series with the great John Underwood. Call them the OG of TED talks.
They became two books for Simon & Schuster. The first was “My Turn At Bat: The Story of My Life” in June, 1969, reissued in 1988.
The second, “The Science of Hitting,” a 1971 color-coded classic that kids my age could actually visualize. If only our 10-year-old selves had any self-discipline or control of our growing limbs and necks to do anything productive with this information. We were no Tony Gwynn (although born within a year of each other), but growing up in Long Beach, he read it, and it worked for him.
The original “Science” can still be found through used-book store searches. On Amazon, nearly 1,500 reviews still have it carrying a five-star certification, particularly impressive in the pre-analytics, pre-video film review era. So many of the reviews today talk about how someone bought it for their grandson and saw the results work. An updated mass-market paperback version came out in 1982, but a more true-to-original reprint followed in ’86 and 2013 by Simon & Schuster/Touchtone.
In Underwood’s forward to the book, he explains Williams’ exit velocity to do this book was to a) expound on the difficult process why even the best fail seven out of 10 games, and b) point out the wrong things told for too many years.
The fact that it’s a slight upswing, not a downswing. The ball angles down, not straight up. You don’t need calculus to see it. It’s obvious. And it means the best way to hit it is to swing slightly up, not level or down. Meet it squarely along its path. They got that wrong for years, ever since Ty Cobb.”
The collision of a ball on the bat lasts only about 1/1000th of a second, something we picked up from the 1994 HarperCollins book, “The Physics of Baseball,” by Robert K. Adair, a Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale. He also got into why a headwind of 10 mph could make a 400-foot homer into a 370-foot flyout, why a curveball won’t break more than 3 ½ inches despite what it looks like, and why a batted ball should never be able to travel farther than 545 feet because energy is generated from thighs and torso, and the arms and hands are just transferring that energy to the body’s “rotational and traverse motion to the bat … the hands and wrists (related to) the energy of the bat is almost negligible.” And, balls go farthest when “hit at a launching angle of about 35 degrees.”
It has been updated and put out several re-issues as late at 2002. That book came out, as we read, when baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti asked his friend, Adair, to advise him on the physics of baseball in 1987. It begat this book.
Adair, it’s been pointed out, isn’t really a “baseball guy.” Will Carroll most definitely is. We’re disappointed it’s taken us this long to realize that fact.
Carroll admits in the intro he is “tempting the Baseball Gods” by adding to the works already done by Williams’ “Science of Hitting” and Adair’s “Physics of Baseball.” Because “putting something in ink is an act of hubris, knowing that from the moment of print, things will change as surely as the seasons.”
He realizes that his 2004 book, “Saving the Pitcher: Preventing Pitcher Injuries in Modern Baseball” is already full of things he feels is out of date. His 2005 book, “The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems,” holds up exceptionally well.
Carroll’s career in writing has been linked to a series “Under the Knife,” focused on baseball injuries and his expertise for Baseball Prospectus, Bleacher Report, SI.com and now flourishing on a substack platform (that includes entry points for free access to some material and a subscription for more meaty stuff). He also has the note: “The best injury information for sports fans and bettors.” We wish the later wasn’t such a thing, but we’re realistic in how it’s devolving.
Self-deprecation will get him far in this line of business.
Peter Gammons has called his work essential reading, and in the forward, compares Carroll’s knowledge of medical science, orthopedics and osteoporosis “to what a Ted Williams or Joey Votto understands is the supply line connection from the foot through hips and core to the fingertips in hitting a baseball, or everything involved with in the kinetic chain of throwing a baseball.”
Carroll, Gammons points out, was the one who could best characterize the inability of San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt’s to play in the 2021 NLDS against the Dodgers, because as much as he could take grounders during warmups, “holding a bat, now that’s an issue, and we still haven’t seen him do it.” So there’d be no Kirk Gibson moment for him to even consider, no matter what the buzz was with others in the media. Which is why when Max Scherzer was finishing off the Dodgers’ win-or-go-home game in San Francisco, Belt wasn’t coming up to save the day.
In deconstructing the science and physics related to the ball, the bat, pitching and fielding, baserunning and training, why it’s time to advance the technology with umpiring and scouting, and then giving a few thoughts about the game’s future, Carroll’s style and knowledge come together as such a pleasant, refreshing outlook, realistic and optimistic, beyond thorough and, most importantly, engaging.
A humorous, no-numbing-down but also no-academic-superiority dialogue also comes with a perfect length and nice price point, to go with a flexible softbound binding as well for portable transportation – specifically between innings to drown out the loud music while sitting in the upper reaches of a stadium seat just enjoying the atmosphere.
How it goes in the scorebook
C’mon, kids. Go up to the stadium concession stand, find the bottles of Coke and the Mentos, and let’s try this stuff out. It’ll make as much sense as trying to explain how Mike Trout had two full swings and misses in this one at bat but ended up with a triple while trying not to swing at what could have ended up as ball two.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco has a fun interactive website about baseball and science: Finding the sweet spot, throwing a curve, and distance hitting. Other sites, like InsideScience.com, can post up on the science behind what a sticky ball can get for you. Stop snickering. A Google search of “Science” and “Baseball” with also turn up titles exponentially related to books aimed at making it all elementary-school friendly. From 2018, our favorite title of the bunch is “Full STEAM Baseball: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics of the Game” by Nicole Helget, if only because it’s cool to see Dustin Pedroia gracing the cover of a baseball title again.
Carroll may not only know what a slide rule is for, but he’ll cut to the chase as to the benefits of the revised “Utley Slide Rule” when it comes to protecting the game’s stars from a change of further injuring themselves. Stay healthy, everyone.
Along the lines to what MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince did in 2020 with “A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics: Why WAR, WHIP, wOBA and Other Advanced Sabermetrics are Essential to Understanding Modern Baseball,” also from Skyhorse Publishing and we happily reviewed, we’re giving Carroll’s book some equal footing in that, if not for the laws of physics and science, we wouldn’t be in this modern-day activity of focusing on exit speed and trajectory and measuring distance. Carroll easily gets into things like the HitTrax system or ProPlayAI and its overall benefits to everyone.
Carroll understands, again as he says in the intro, that “baseball is often a game of statistics, but also stories. It’s a game of science, but also of magic.” He finds the proper balance, love and hope.
You can look it up: More to ponder
== A 2015 interview with Indianapolis Monthly:
Q: You’ve been writing almost exclusively about sports injuries for the better part of two decades. What drew you to the issue?
A: I’ve been around this all my life. My father was in sports medicine. It was an area I didn’t see enough coverage of, and I was crazy enough to think I could do it.
== Chris Davis reviews the book for CoveringTheCorner at SBNation.com and points out how Carroll “did the primary work of speaking with experts like Dr. Meredith Wills, whose work on the baseball itself is second to none, in order to share the secondary data (that Wills collected) in an approachable way to less scientifically inclined audiences. Baseball fans seeking out a baseball book might already know Dr. Wills’ work from The Athletic or Sports Illustrated, but she is only the first of many experts cited in The Science of Baseball. Carroll goes deep with the bat makers, groundskeepers, even scouts to show how technology is advancing in areas that would surprise even attentive fans.”